Ferguson grand jury: What do we know about Michael Brown deliberations?

With a decision imminent on whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of the teenager, here’s a rundown on what the grand jury is doing, and how it works.

Kate Munsch/Reuters
Volunteers board up the 'I Love Ferguson' headquarters in preparation for the grand jury verdict in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tuesday.

Whatever it decides, a grand jury in St. Louis County is about to make big news. It must weigh whether county prosecutors should charge police officer Darren Wilson with a crime in the shooting death of Michael Brown three months ago.

The event prompted a tide of protest in Ferguson, Mo., as an alleged example of excessive use of force by police against a black teenager. 

Now, with a grand jury decision imminent, Gov. Jay Nixon has called up the Missouri National Guard amid the possibility of chaos in the streets of Ferguson and other parts of the county.

Here’s a rundown on what the grand jury is doing, and how it works.

What is a grand jury?

Unlike a traditional trial jury, tasked with weighing guilt or innocence, the role of grand juries is to decide whether a criminal charge should be brought to trial in the first place. The members of a grand jury often serve for months and render decisions on many cases. They hear evidence and can issue a “true bill” or indictment, saying there is probable cause to believe a crime has occurred and saying who should be charged. They can also decline a prosecutor’s request for indictment.

Who is on the grand jury in the Michael Brown case?

The grand jury is composed of 12 people “selected at random from a fair cross-section of the citizens,” according to Missouri law. The jury is 75 percent white: six white men, three white women, two black women, and one black man. St. Louis County overall is 70 percent white, but the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is about two-thirds black.

What must they decide on?

They must weigh whether there is enough evidence to charge Wilson and, if so, what the criminal charge should be. Charges could range from second-degree involuntary manslaughter, which is defined as acting with criminal negligence to cause a death (punishable by up to four years in prison) to various degrees of murder, which have higher punishments.

What evidence have they heard?

What they hear is supposed to stay secret while they’re deliberating, so we don’t know the details. The people in the room are the jury, prosecutors, and witnesses. But some important information has leaked in this case, notably that Wilson took the unusual step (for a potential defendant) of testifying as a witness. Another witness was Dr. Michael Baden, who performed a private autopsy on Brown on behalf of his family. 

In news reports, conflicting accounts have emerged. The basic narrative is that Wilson drove up alongside Brown and a colleague around noon on Aug. 9, and asked them to stop walking in the street. Wilson is said to have testified that he noticed that Brown’s friend matched the description of a convenience store robbery suspect. Wilson’s reported account is also that as he prepared to confront the pair, Brown began to assault him through the open car window. Brown began to flee after Wilson fired his gun at him.

Although that account lends itself to the argument that Wilson acted in self-defense, other witnesses have been quoted saying that, once he emerged from his car, Wilson shot at the fleeing Brown and then shot him multiple times when Brown had stopped fleeing.

Accounts differ on whether Brown put his hands up, asked Wilson to stop shooting, or was trying to move toward Wilson when he was killed. The phrase “hands up, don’t shoot” has become a rallying cry of protesters who are seeking both justice for Brown and wider police reforms.

Soon the public will learn more about the grand jury’s view of the chain of events on Aug. 9.

What information will the grand jurors make public?

An indictment will be made public if Wilson is charged, but the evidence will be kept secret for use at a trial. If Wilson is not indicted – a distinct possibility in the eyes of many legal experts – County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch has said he will take the unusual step of transparency by releasing transcripts and audio recordings of the grand jury investigation.

When will the grand jury make a decision?

There is no specific date. Prosecuting Attorney McCulloch has said he expects grand jurors to reach a decision in mid- to late November. But the timing ultimately is up to the grand jurors.

Do criminal charges require a unanimous vote?

No. Consent from nine jurors is enough to file a charge in Missouri.

What’s the point of having a grand jury make this kind of decision?

Legal experts say the use of grand juries acts as a check against the untrammeled use of prosecutorial power by the state. In practice, grand juries typically issue an indictment when one is sought by prosecutors. But grand juries aren’t just rubber stamps. They can ask their own questions and call for more evidence.

In this case, some observers say the grand jury is also being tasked with a decision that might be even more volatile if made directly by prosecutors. (The county prosecutors aren’t making their own recommendations about a charge for Wilson, leaving it to the grand jurors.)

An alternative to grand juries is having an open preliminary hearing in court before going ahead with a trial. The secrecy of grand jury deliberations can help protect individuals from having their reputations damaged in cases where no charges are brought.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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